Friday, June 8, 2018

Northside Festival, Night 1: Liz Phair Played National Sawdust with Soccer Mommy

Liz Phair. #shotoniphone

One and Done

"You have to balance the cool with the dad." That's what a very wise person (It was Maggie.) said to me last night as we were leaving National Sawdust following Liz Phair's amazing "Girly-Sound to Guyville" set there for Northside Festival 2018. It was only about 10:45, and there were still tons of festival shows happening. I'd mentioned that, in past years, I'd have headed out to another show or two. On this night, though, CoolMom was still on her business trip. CoolDaughter 1 was home holding down the fort, and I didn't want to leave the girls home alone into the wee hours of the morning. I headed to the car and drove home.

As it was, even to make it to the show, I had to leave CoolDaughter 2's softball game early. She'd had a tough game on Wednesday, striking out three times. As I left on Thursday, though, she was already 2 for 2 with a HBP. We spoke as I drove along the Staten Island Expressway, and she finished her night 4 for 4. She was so happy, which made me happy.


This is, I think, my fourth year covering the festival. Dad responsibilities always mean that it's a back and forth proposition for me rather than one where I can make camp in Brooklyn. I've had some great times there discovering new bands, seeing old favorites, and making new friends. This is Northside's 10th year, and something seems different this year. For one, there aren't any shows in McCarren Park. Those were always a big deal; and I saw Brian Wilson, Wolf Parade, Hinds, Luna, The Blind Shake, King Gizzard, and others there. It just seems that, after the last two years, when the festival really seemed to be blowing up, they've kind of scaled back a little this year. That's not to say there aren't some great things lined up, though.

The first trip up to Brooklyn for this year's festival was the usual. All the usual traffic in all the usual spots. I found parking pretty easily and walked over to National Sawdust to see a huge line outside for Liz Phair. The show was sold out, and there would be a limited number of press passes allowed inside (turned out it was only 5). With a little help from my friends, though, I managed to nab a spot on the guest list; and, 25 years after obsessing on Exile in Guyville with CoolMom when we were living back in Seattle, I was finally going to see Liz Phair play the songs live.

National Sawdust is a non-profit arts organization and event space with a capacity of 350 -- super small and intimate for an artist like Liz Phair. It has a look that opener, Soccer Mommy, accurately described as making you feel like you're in the movie Galaxy Quest. The acoustics are amazing. More on that in a minute.

Soccer Mommy (the stage name of Nashville singer / songwriter Sophie Allison) opened the show and did a 40 or so minute set of songs that mixed some older stuff with selections from this year's Clean. Allison is a brilliant lyricist with an amazing voice. I'm always impressed when someone can come out onto a stage alone, with just a guitar, put it all out there, and own the room the way Soccer Mommy did. It's even more impressive when someone does that as the opener for a revered artist.

I'll admit to being one of those who kind of abandoned Phair when she went more pop in the early aughts. I've seen interviews with her where she said that she was always striving for popular success, and I don't blame her for going for it I guess. I also hate to be that person who says, "I only like their early stuff;" but, honestly, Liz Phair's first three records -- and especially Guyville -- are right up there among my favorite albums ever.

As a guy who's pretty much exactly the same age as Phair, I was probably more the target than the target audience of the songs on Guyville; but, even for me, a lot of it hit home -- the overriding theme of being kind of an introvert who talks big in your head when you’re alone, for example.

Last night, it was just Phair and fellow guitarist Connor Sullivan. Phair's guitar was mostly in tune most of the time, and all the songs had a shambolic feel that took them (especially songs like "Whip Smart" and "Polyester Bride") back to their Girly-Sound roots. As I mentioned, the acoustics in the place were fantastic; and as everyone's voices swelled to sing "They play me like a pit bull in a basement and for that" on "Help Me Mary" or "Don't look at me sideways. Don't even look me straight on" on "Never Said," it was magical.

Phair was gracious and funny between songs. There wasn't a lot of "this song is about" kind of banter, but she did introduce "Girls! Girls! Girls!" ("I take full advantage, of every man I meet") by saying, "It was about this time that I thought I could do what the guys were doing."

There was a "no photos" policy for the evening, but that turned out to be a good thing. I'm grateful that I got to experience such an intimate set at all. Not having to worry about "working" made it that much more special. This dad could only pick one show to go to last night, and I ended up at the coolest one.

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